Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:47 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:47 pm, 1st March 2017

At last, at last—finally, the Bus Services Bill has arrived. We rejoice at its arrival and want to ensure that it does not disappoint. It is a bit like the experience that I expect many of us have had as bus passengers. We wait for a long time at the bus stop, finally spying a bus on the distant horizon, only for our hearts to sink as it approaches and we see the destination sign, because, after all that waiting, the Bus Services Bill is marked, “Franchising for mayors and combined authorities only.” For most of the country, it will be a long wait for better buses if the Government get their way and carry out their threat to reverse the improvements made to the Bill before it arrived here. We will revisit this argument in Committee, but I urge the Minister to consider leaving the Bill in its improved state so that everyone gains.

We have heard excellent contributions from both sides of the House. It is rare that we discuss buses, but we have done the subject justice today. As it happens, we have heard from a glittering array of former shadow Secretaries of State for Transport with some very fine contributions. I am deeply conscious that almost everyone who has spoken is more experienced in the House than I am, so I listened to their wise counsel and have learned a lot.

My hon. Friend Mrs Ellman, who chairs the Transport Committee, rightly pointed out that it was disappointing that the Bill was not published alongside the vital guidance and secondary legislation. I should say in passing that I pay tribute to the officials who have worked very hard on the Bill. Obviously, an 18-month wait gives more scope for more work, so we have some sympathy, but the lengthy draft guidance did come rather late, which has made it harder for everyone to scrutinise it sufficiently closely.

My hon. Friend and her Committee also noted that the language used in the draft guidance is rather vague in a number of areas. We have heard the phrase “compelling case” mentioned a number of times today, but it is too vague. There should be no room for ambiguity or subjectivity in such important guidance, which is supposed to outline how the powers in the Bill will be put into practice. I hope the Minister, in his response, can give some clarification on those points.

My hon. Friend Graham Stringer gave us an important historical account of how the Bill came about. He rightly reminded us that, although there was no golden age, things were very different 30 or 40 years ago, and people could actually get around. He was also the first to rightly query the barrier the Government are setting in terms of those offered franchising.

My hon. Friend Jeff Smith, in a very witty—almost Cantona-esque—contribution, queried the opportunities the Bill provides to improve the environmental friendliness of buses, and he made a good offer to the Government on behalf of Greater Manchester, expressing its willingness to prove that the model can actually work.

My hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood, in a powerful and passionate contribution, which absolutely showcased her detailed knowledge of the subject, sang the praises of her city. She persuaded us, as if we needed any persuading, that buses can be glamorous. She also explained how success had been achieved in her city through well-trained staff, good leadership and partnerships that work. She pointed out that that is slightly at odds with what some of us would see as the Secretary of State’s approach, which seems to be more concerned with not co-operating with Labour authorities than with putting passengers’ best interests first.

My hon. Friend Jonathan Reynolds and a number of others pointed out the very high cost of bus travel at the moment. He did find it within himself to praise the London system, which must have been hard. He also pointed out that many other European cities operate such a system and that it can be very successful.

My hon. Friend Mike Kane, with his customary gusto, reminded us that his city is much visited and that Manchester airport is in his constituency, as if anyone needed reminding. He, too, explained the very high costs faced in constituencies and warned that the guidance must not make this process unworkable. My hon. Friend Judith Cummins rightly pointed out that bus passengers must not be used as a bargaining chip in devolution discussions.

My right hon. Friend Andy Burnham reminded us of where all this came from: the ideological experiment that, in his words, has been inflicted on the public, and he is absolutely right to call time on it. He also raised important air quality issues, calling for a clean air zone. He, too, urged the Government to provide clarity on the term “compelling case”.

My hon. Friend Mary Creagh rightly reminded us of the cost for families, which has been a recurring theme in the debate. People in London would do well to remember that the relatively low cost of services enjoyed here is quite unlike the costs elsewhere, particularly for families. The examples that have been given of it being cheaper to get a cab are very telling. My hon. Friend, too, spoke strongly about the environmental issues. She also said that the funding issues have not been addressed by the Bill.

My hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson stressed that it is the London model that is competitive at the moment, not the model elsewhere. She rightly praised colleagues in the north-east for their worthy and doughty attempts to get a quality contract. She also rightly concluded that, given that all that work has been done, the logic would be to continue and conclude it.

Finally, my hon. Friend Louise Haigh made important points about open data. I note her comments about free wi-fi, and we will be pursuing that.

We are in the perhaps unusual but happy position of rather agreeing with the Government on much of this Bill, which was, in our view, much improved by the changes made during its passage through the other place. It now offers a step back from the problems created 30 years ago, offering an extension of the system that has worked well in London since then. However, for anyone concerned that competition is being taken out of the system, let us be very clear that it is not: it is being moved from on the road to off the road. The London system is highly competitive, ironically, unlike many other areas that have lapsed into near-monopoly status, with powerful operators able to see off competition from new entrants. We support the changes because they are a step forward and provide the opportunity of improving services for passengers, but we also know the risks of competition, and so we will be demanding strong safeguards, particularly in protecting workers from suffering a race to the bottom.

The Bill offers new forms of partnership, which we also support, because, put simply, one cannot run a bus service without the road space to do so, and we know how controversial that can be in many places. It is therefore vital that there is a constructive relationship between those who run the services and those who plan and maintain the road network and supporting infrastructure. We also know that in different places different kinds of relationships have grown up. We want to respect those differences and acknowledge where they are successful, so a range of different types of partnership makes sense. However, it is not clear that the Department has always had a good grasp of what is happening on the ground—a point rather admitted in recent answers to written questions—and better analysis would provide more confidence, because there is a danger of a plethora of poorly understood arrangements emerging. The one model that makes the most obvious sense—allowing elected local authorities to take a holistic approach and run the services themselves—is of course being deliberately ruled out by the Government. We believe they are wrong to do that.

We are pleased that the Bill now includes provisions on audio-visual announcements, environmental protection and passenger representation, but there are still certain aspects that we hope to amend, and I look forward to visiting those issues in Committee. We do not, for example, believe that the employment protection provisions are strong enough, and we would like to see something concrete on bus safety reporting and disability awareness training for bus drivers, not just reassurances from Ministers that those issues will be dealt with at a later date.

We welcome the data provisions in the Bill. Opening up data should lead to greater transparency and opportunities for innovation around transport apps, as we have heard from a number of hon. Members. It is particularly welcome for fares, the data on which are currently siloed, incomplete, and inconclusive. It is astonishing that in the 21st century any provider of a service should think so little of their passengers that they do not even tell them the price before the start of the journey. Just stepping back and thinking about this for a moment tells us all we need to know about the privatised bus market. It is a 30-year experiment that failed: 30 years in which operators could have pursued innovation and delivered the promises made by the Conservatives when they tore the national system apart, but in reality 30 years when services have declined, fares have risen, and passengers have been taken for granted rather than cherished. Passengers deserve much better, including better information. They deserve to know more, and we will press for more information on issues such as the publication of data on bus accidents.

We already have a roads investment strategy, a rail investment strategy, and, although we are still waiting for it, a cycling and walking investment strategy, so is it too much to ask that we see a proper, national conversation about, and a long-term plan for, bus investment? The Government say that the bus industry is a private industry and thus does not require an investment strategy, but, as we have heard, there is significant public funding going into it—about 40% of the revenue comes from the public purse. We need to have a proper think about how best to utilise that money to ensure that while bus operators have strong businesses, they also provide the best value for money for all bus passengers.

While we hear what the Secretary of State has said about this, I hope that he reconsiders his ambition to revisit several of the amendments made to this Bill in the other place. We have already removed an ideological clause banning local authorities from forming their own bus companies, because that not only seems antithetical to a Bill that has been repeatedly described as an enabling Bill intended to allow local authorities to pick a system of governance best suited to their local needs, but feels bolted on. Indeed, it was not mentioned at all in the original bus reform workshop documents. As others have pointed out, why on earth limit a model that works so well? Some of the best operators in the country, as we have heard, are municipals. That being the case, let us have more of them—let us have more success. That is the Labour way, and that is the route we will be pursuing in future.

Local authorities all over the country need and deserve greater control over their bus services, whether in rural areas, conurbations, or in between. It is positive that the Government have agreed as a condition of their city deals to give combined mayoral authorities London-style powers over their bus networks, and they must honour that promise, but what about the rest?

I fear that this patchwork approach will lead to inconsistency and leave many areas with no route to improvement at all. The partnership options in the Bill look promising, but in many areas bus operators with a monopoly of the local market might not be minded to enter a partnership agreement.